How Israel’s Grandmotherly Hero Fell From Grace
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Because leading a nation requires thinking outside the box.
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Turkish coffee and apfelstrudel were served as the hostess puffed away on her cigarettes, serving up political savvy alongside the treats. Israeli politicos were invited to swing by for informal chats with Golda Meir, giving rise to her famed “kitchen cabinet” and the image of a beloved grandmother who had dedicated her life to Israel. The lady behind the apron? A fiercely committed Labor Zionist and socialist — born in present-day Ukraine, educated in America — who would become the West’s first female head of state. From 1969 to 1974, she served as prime minister of the Jewish State, and few people, according to Elinor Burkett in Golda, could “resist admiring her as a tough negotiator who also found time to fix tea and cake for Henry Kissinger.”
But by late 1973, many in Israel would begin looking at their doting leader in a less-flattering light. Meir, after all, was at the helm that October 6, when Syrians and Egyptians surprised Israeli front-line defenses on Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — and she would forever be blamed for the 2,500-plus soldiers who perished. A War of Attrition along the borders carved by the Six-Day War of 1967 — in which Israeli troops seized the Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula (to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal), West Bank and Golan Heights — had left Israel weary of artillery barrages and guerrilla marauders killing soldiers on either side of the canal and the Jordan Valley. By 1970, says Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, Meir had committed Israel in principle to pursuing land for peace policies and brought an end to the attrition, giving Israelis the sense that they could do no wrong. “[Israel] had the U.S. in its pocket, and the Arabs were terrified of Israeli power,” he says.
By refusing to think outside a narrow box, Meir and her colleagues failed to negotiate peace.
But a combination of presumption, inflexibility and calamitous error led to the October 1973 war, snapping Israelis out of what Lustick calls a “kind of euphoria.” Meir would prove an adept wartime leader, but cracks in her armor would come to light after the fact, exposing faulty decisions in the months leading up to that fateful fall day. “Unwavering, cautious and determined” are words Lustick uses to describe Israel’s formidable leading lady. “Unimaginative” is another. By refusing to think outside a narrow box, Meir and her colleagues failed to negotiate peace.
Many point to her flawed decision not to launch a preemptive strike in the weeks prior to the Yom Kippur War — a strategy used to success in ’67. Her advisers were sending mixed messages — some smelled war, others scoffed at what they believed was an Arab bluff — and Meir feared that striking first would jeopardize U.S. military aid to Israel. And even more than failing to launch a preemptive attack, Lustick argues, “The mistake was putting Israel in a position where a prime minister could not politically afford to make a preemptive strike when one tactically was required.”
Three years earlier, in December 1970, defense minister Moshe Dayan had suggested Israel pull back 20 miles from the Suez Canal — allowing the waterway to reopen, making it impossible for Egyptians to launch a surprise attack and slaking Egypt’s thirst for war, according to Abraham Rabinovich in The Yom Kippur War. But Meir was “confident that Israel’s geopolitical situation had never been better” and was “content to wait for the Arabs to bow to reality,” Rabinovich writes. So she rejected Dayan’s idea, which caused cabinet infighting between Dayan and Yigal Allon, former commander of the elite defense force Palmach, both of whom were vying to become Meir’s successor.
Political infighting was certainly a factor, but so too was Meir’s “ingrained distrust of Arabs,” says Lustick, noting how she preferred not to take any risks or give up anything — “an unimaginative, stolid, determinedly narrow way to look at international politics,” warns Lustick. This prompted Meir to repeatedly reject peace initiatives that might have resulted in a buffer zone between Israeli and Egyptian forces in the Sinai between 1969 and 1973. “That was the big mistake,” Lustick adds.
But Meir’s strength of character shone when it mattered most during the Yom Kippur War, Lustick says. Immediately following the surprise attack, with Israelis reeling, some questioned whether they would be able to stop the onslaught. Dayan reportedly panicked, telling Meir the situation was so bleak in the north that Syrians might cross into Israel and recommending that the country’s nuclear weapons be armed. “Famously, Meir decided not to do that and held his panic in check,” Lustick says.
However, with her chance to launch a preemptive strike past and ill-prepared for the coordinated attack that would claim thousands of Israeli lives before a cease-fire was secured on October 25, Meir would never recover her political standing. Israel had been rocked to its core, and while a commission investigating the decisions before and in the early part of the war ultimately exonerated Meir, many refused to forgive her for the bloodbath on that Day of Atonement.
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